The legacy of 'jaws' that has bitten the dust

Summer blockbusters began 35 years ago with the Steven Spielberg classic. Now the phenomenon is over

Guy Adams
Monday 28 June 2010 00:00

It's been 35 years, but people are still scared to get into the water. That's the legacy of a two-hour movie released in June 1975 by a then little-known director called Steven Spielberg, and which turned the hitherto tranquil act of visiting the beach into a nerve-wracking pursuit which involved the humming, at ever increasing speed, of two musical notes: "dee-dum."

The film, of course, was Jaws. And aside from forever poisoning our relationship with vast predatory fish, it also made an indelible impact on modern culture as the first ever Summer Blockbuster: the first movie to pass the milestone of making $100m at the box office, and the first to be marketed by a major Hollywood studio as a cultural event.

Before Jaws, new films were typically released in a handful of cinemas, often on a Monday night, before widening to more screens if enough people turned up.

After Jaws, the industry's playing field shifted: having learned that a single movie could make $100m, studios began taking bigger gambles. They filled cinemas with expensive "tent-pole" productions which opened on a Thursday or Friday in hundreds of theatres at once. If they caught the zeitgeist, financial returns were stellar. If they didn't, the losses were equally spectacular.

This, give or take, was the revolution that gave rise to the most influential films of the past three-and-a-half decades. Without Jaws, the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films would never have been green-lit. There would be no Batman, Spider-Man, Transformers, Mission Impossible. Not for nothing is Steven Spielberg widely known as the "father" of the modern blockbuster.

Yet lately, there have been signs that the time-honoured genre he created may be slipping into decline. More and more action-packed special-effects-laden cinematic extravaganzas have bombed, while smaller, quirkier titles have upset the odds and succeeded. The evidence pointing to the blockbuster's demise is written not just in the Oscars, which for years have tended to be dominated by independent titles, but in the 2010 box office charts. Recent months have seen ambitious projects like Prince of Persia, Clash of the Titans and Ridley Scott's Robin Hood land with a soft thud, making only a fraction of expected takings. The Memorial Day holiday, traditionally one of the most lucrative weekends in the US box office calendar, was the worst in 17 years.

Universal, the studio which launched Jaws in 1975, is in the regrettable position of not having produced a bona fide hit for over a year. MGM, which used to churn out storied blockbusters, is on the verge of bankruptcy. While Hollywood keeps churning out expensive action films, more and more of the breakout hits of recent times appear to have been cut from a different cloth. "Over the years, the term 'summer blockbuster' has come to mean a very specific sort of movie, targeted mostly at teenage boys or families," says Tim Gray, the editor of Variety. Yet, Gray says, the most modish movies of recent summers have been titles like The Hangover, an adult comedy with no major stars, and Mamma Mia, a quirky musical. Last year saw offbeat titles like District 9 and Inglourious Basterds make unexpectedly healthy returns.

"Studios are catching on to the fact that there are audiences beyond the traditional Transformers crowd," adds Gray. "Last year there were seven or eight real surprise hits, including things like Paranormal Activity and Taken, which made huge sums. In the past you'd maybe expect no more than two or three."

The great irony about Jaws is the fact that it owed much of its success to a happy accident. Spielberg, 27 at the time of filming secured a $7m budget for his adaptation of the novel by Peter Benchley, and decided to spend the cash filming key scenes off the coast of Martha's Vineyard (rather than in a cheaper, safer, indoor tank). A special-effects nut, Spielberg also decided to create a hydraulically powered fake shark called Bruce. Unfortunately, Bruce suffered technical problems. First he sank. Then salt water played havoc with his mechanics. Filming ran over schedule. Even when he did work, Bruce still looked fake. So once Spielberg got to the editing room, he made perhaps the most important decision of his career: he took a hatchet to his proposed film, editing out almost all of the footage of the shark, so that it only appeared, very fleetingly, and mostly towards the end, when the audience had already suspended its disbelief.

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Paradoxically, the change made Jaws exponentially more terrifying. Film-goers saw the results of the shark's handiwork: the screaming holidaymakers and the ocean stained red with blood. But the villain of the piece remained hidden.

Realising the commercial potential on their hands, Universal delayed release until Friday, 24 June 1975. They marketed it heavily, with endless adverts and trailers and a memorable slogan: "Don't go in the water!" It opened straight into 400 cinemas, an uncommonly large number for the era. The profit margin, for the first run, was 1,500 per cent. On the opening night, queues of teenage boys formed outside cinemas. Over the ensuing weeks, many of them were prepared to pay to see Jaws several times. It had become the first real "event" movie.

This taught studios two things: with editing, even mediocre footage can be re-engineered into a brilliant film, and if you bet big you stand a far higher chance of winning big. The Jaws model gave us Star Wars and Top Gun, and some of the most memorable films of the past 35 years. But it has also become a licence to make bad films. As studios took bigger bets, they began ironing out provocative quirks in their products, tending to leave them artistically neutered.

In Jaws we can also see the start of the disheartening trend for endless, unimaginative sequels. The film had three – in 1978, 1983 and 1987, each worse than its predecessor. These days, even the kind of release schedule pioneered by Jaws has been endlessly abused. An average new Hollywood film hits between 2,000 and 3,000 cinemas on the opening weekend. To cynics, this allows a bad film to get a vast audience before word gets out that it's lousy. But audiences appear to be getting wise to those tricks. It's getting harder, if you like, to tempt them into the water.

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